Data are lost to science at 'astonishing rate'

New evidence reported in the journal Current Biology on December 19 confirms long-held fears about the fate of scientific data. Careful evaluation of more than 500 randomly selected studies found that the original data behind those published papers have been lost to science at a rapid rate.

Two years after publication, data are essentially always available to other researchers who might wish to confirm the findings, the researchers found. By 20 years post-publication, 80% of that data obtained through publicly funded research is inaccessible due to mundane issues, primarily old email addresses and obsolete storage devices. The researchers call on journals to require that authors share their data on a public archive before a paper can be published.

"I think nobody expects that you'd be able to get data from a fifty-year-old paper, but to find that almost all the data sets are gone at twenty years was a bit of a surprise," says Timothy Vines of the University of British Columbia.

"Publicly funded science generates an extraordinary amount of data each year. Much of these data are unique to a time and place, and are thus irreplaceable, and many other data sets are expensive to regenerate," he adds. "The current system of leaving data with authors means that almost all of it is lost over time. The data are thus unavailable for future researchers to check old results or use for entirely new purposes. Losing data is a waste of research funds, and it limits how we can do science."

Vines and his colleagues came to this conclusion by examining papers reporting a very specific and relatively simple type of data: length measurements of plants and animals. Those papers were selected because length measurements have been collected in exactly the same way for decades, making straightforward comparisons over time much easier to do.

The analysis found that the odds of obtaining an original data set for any one of those papers fell by 17% every year. In Vines's estimation, journals are the only party with sufficient leverage to ensure that the data underlying published studies will get shared.

"Scientific data are being lost at an astonishing rate, and concerted action—particularly by journals—is needed to make sure it is saved for future researchers," Vines says.

Explore further

Scientists who share data publicly receive more citations

More information: Current Biology, Vines et al.: "The availability of research data declines rapidly with article age."
Journal information: Current Biology

Provided by Cell Press
Citation: Data are lost to science at 'astonishing rate' (2013, December 19) retrieved 21 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Dec 19, 2013
better yet...REQUIRE publicly funded research to be publicly stored as a condition of the grant

Dec 19, 2013
Indeed - despite including "tard" in your nic that seems a very sensible idea. Surely it's in the interests of the funding body to ensure that the data arising from expenditure of their money remains available? They appear to be the logical enforcers of any such policy.

(In a past life I worked for a public-good Govt funding body for scientific studies, so I know something of the systems and processes in place for such schemes; at the time no requirement for safe long-term storage of data was made even though we funded projects from scales of a few $thousand up to multiples of $100M. It seems almost criminal that now probably much of that [very expensive] data will be lost or unavailable. With a relatively minor policy change and some infrastructure we could have safeguarded it for the future...)

Dec 19, 2013
Ironic that one of the follow-up articles listed is from 10/1/2013 - "Scientists who share data publicly receive more citations" -

Dec 20, 2013
Levying retention mandates on researchers is not likely to be satisfactory. Who's responsible when the project terminates? Who pays for it? Better to have something akin to the Library of Congress. Some group whose sole focus is archiving.

Dec 20, 2013
There were proposals twenty years ago for the public archiving of data. Shame on the scientific community--journal editors, societies, scientists themselves--for not doing what has been for in front of everyone's eyes for so long.

Dec 20, 2013
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Dec 20, 2013
The gap between info gathering and storage will be closed with consistent AI oversight. Knowledge will be the most important commodity of machine minds.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more